Tree removal crews, such as this one on Hwy. 278 on Oct. 24, continue to clean up after Matthew. By Dean Rowland

Halftime at local football games usually is uneventful. Not last Friday afternoon when Hilton Head Preparatory School hosted rival Christian Academy.

Senior-class athletes and cheerleaders gathered at midfield during the game break as part of the traditional “Senior Night” festivities and were joined by very special guests: Hurricane Matthew first responders from the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton.

“Everyone has been affected by the storm, and we were trying to make them feel appreciated,” said Margot Brown, director of development and finance for Prep. Students had raised more than $1,400 to sponsor the special occasion, which was attended by more than 500.

October was quite a month for the annals of the Lowcountry. Town Manager Steve Riley, also serving as de facto chief administrative officer, had the duty and authority to coordinate hurricane planning and response efforts. Here’s a chronology of some of his comments.

  • Oct. 4 (early evening): Riley advises town council members to evacuate at a brief meeting: “…as an elected official, you should lead by example. There’s no heroism in staying, and you are no good to me dead.”
  • Oct. 6 (afternoon): “The National Weather Service could not guarantee me with absolute certainty that (Hurricane Matthew) would have climbed from a (category) 3 to 2 by the time it came past us… I couldn’t risk that, so Thursday night we made the decision that all of our core staff – fire and rescue, emergency operations – would leave on Friday and go out to our base camp at USCB. So we all left – the firemen were all off the island, all fire trucks and ambulances were off the island by noon, and I was probably off the island by 2 p.m.”
  • Oct. 7 (late night): “I forced myself to sleep. Once the wind started howling, it was hard to sleep and I kept waking up.”
  • Oct. 8 (mid-morning): “It became immediately clear that we were not going to be able to get to any of the fire stations, the hospital, the airport … none of those were reachable without debris-clearing crews.”

Oct. 8 (afternoon): “The Palmetto Dunes security guys told us they had spent the night on the landward side of the Marriott Hotel and had to abandon their vehicles at the hotel and walk all the way out.”

The aftermath: “It will be many, many, many millions. We did a quick drive-by in the first couple of days, and we quickly got over $10 million in just a few buildings. It will be in the tens of millions.”

Riley convened his senior staff in an emergency briefing early Tuesday afternoon on Oct. 4. Hurricane preparedness, plans and procedures were reviewed. It was Riley’s fourth time going through this drill in his 25 years as town manager.

His wife evacuated Oct. 5, and more than 600 first-responders hunkered down for an uncertain Friday night on the college campus in Bluffton.

By 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Riley and a handful of other senior personnel were back on the island in two SUVs surveying the damage. The roads were a complete mess. They couldn’t access any of the 25 targeted priority facilities as planned until clean-up crews assisted. Hurricane winds were still whipping.

He called for the critical backups – emergency responders with heavy-duty cleanup equipment.

By sunset on Oct. 8, there was a ragged sense of operational normalcy. All but three of the priority missions had been accomplished; all firefighters had returned to the island.

“I knew we had good plans and a lot of faith in staff,” Riley said. “If we execute it with sensitivity and compassion and a positive attitude, then we’ll be OK. … It’s a blessing we didn’t have fatalities.”

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.